Meet Mark Cullen

Canada's best known gardening personality, Mark Cullen believes that Canadians of all ages need to play more - preferably in the dirt. A best-selling author with over 400,000 books in print, Mark reaches over one million Canadians every week through various media outlets. He is Home Hardware's horticultural spokesperson and regularly contributes to various magazines, gardening shows and newsletters. With a familiar style that people can relate to, he delivers a message that is compelling, fun, informative and inspirational - all based on his organic approach to gardening. In his spare time Mark enjoys driving his Ford Model A - and of course he loves to garden.

Salt Alternatives

I hear from Jason, my Winnipeg connection, that things have warmed up considerably in the last few days on the Canadian prairies. So much so that his young kids can now go outdoors to play and not risk life and limb due to minus ice-age temperatures.

This reminds me of all of the salt that we use in this country, especially when the temperature ‘warms up’ to greater than minus 12°C. (Note: only someone from the Prairies would consider -12°C ‘warm’).

Truth is, salt does not effectively melt ice or snow at temperatures below minus 12°C. (+5°F) which explains why most cities on the prairies favour the dirty grit that they spread on their roads for traction as a salt alternative. This stuff makes your car such a dirty mess that you often can’t tell a Mercedes from a Chevy, but for the most part, it does the job.

In the rest of the country we reach for the salt when clearing the roads of ice and snow, which is a danger to the plants in your garden, our water, our soil and a threat to aquatic life. Other than that, it is fine.

Protect Your Plants.
I recommend that you wrap your upright evergreens, especially cedars, on the east side of a busy road with two layers of burlap to avoid the inevitable ‘salt drift’ that occurs when traffic kicks the salt solution or brine up off the road. The prevailing winds push it in the direction of your prized evergreens. The two layers of natural burlap will insulate them from the inevitable damage that will occur from the burning effects of the salt.

I could go on about the toxic mess that salt creates, but I am not here to bash the use of salt. Let’s face it: salt is cheap and it provides for much safer driving conditions when the temperature is right (see above).


However, for those of us who are not under contract to the highways department for snow and ice removal (i.e. if you are only concerned about your front walk/steps and driveway) there ARE alternatives to common ‘road salt’.
Some are synthetic and others are 100% ‘natural’. Both have their features, benefits and limitations. From a practical point of view these products provide a reasonably economical alternative to the much less damaging and slower working common salt.

I have been using Alaskan Ice Melter for a few years: it is Canadian made and contains a combination of calcium chloride, CaCl2 and urea. The granules are ‘colour marked’ so that you can tell when you have put down enough or used too much. It works even when temperature dip to as low as minus 31°C(-24°F), it lasts twice as long as rock salt, is gentle on concrete, grass, plants and pets when used as directed and it provides good traction the moment that you apply it.


There are other ‘ice melters’ on the market that are worth a try, I am sure. In my opinion the less salt that we use, the better all round. Let me say that if you over-apply an ‘ice melter’ they often produce a white residue on your boots and your car floor mats, but this is much less stubborn than that of salt and washes out easily.

Also, if you use more than directed on the package you may cause damage to your lawn, plants or concrete, but you would be challenged to do this. Again, my experience tells me that salt is far more damaging to anything that is living and we have all seen the damage that it can do to concrete over time. Just visit a building in most any part of Canada with concrete steps over 20 years old…. Look carefully and you will see that the steps are pock marked, beat up and aged or they have been replaced or repaired over time. Unless they have used a salt alternative.

All Natural.

Home Hardware sells their own brand of salt-less ice melter under the Natura brand. I have not tried it, but I trust the brand. (
Another natural alternative is Get a Grip® Natural Ice Melter ( It will melt ice at temperatures down to – 18 C, contains a similar ‘colour marker’ as the Alaskan brand, provides instant traction and is reportedly ‘gentle on concrete, grass, plants and pets. No mention of kids in their press release but I assume that it is gentle on them too. I would not recommend that you keep them indoors just because you ‘salt-alternative’ the front walk.

Give the alternatives to salt a try and let me know how you do.
If your experience is anything like mine, you will be hooked and will never buy another bag of salt for anything. Except maybe the water softener.

Keep your knees dirty,


Next week: time to get off your butt in earnest and ‘Start Your Garden Indoors’ – I will tell you how, why and what to sow for a great looking (and cheap!) garden.